Seeing Past Fossil Fuels

Published on May 23rd, 2014 | by

fossil fuels

In recent weeks I have read a number of reports published on the BBC which look at energy issues. One article in particular by science editor David Shuckman caught my attention. It looked at how European countries might replace Russian Gas imports. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis and the possibility of tit for tat sanctions disrupting the supply of Russian Gas, a number of countries are looking at what other options are available to them. The article discussed options such as increased imports of LNG to Europe. And yet incredibly in the entire article, not a single mention was made of boosting the supply of renewable energy. Possible disruptions to supplies must surely send a powerful signal that relying on fossil fuel energy is short sighted, and that it is time to move in a new direction. Yet none of the parties involved appear to see this; they want to replace a reliance on imported gas from Russia with a reliance on LNG from other suppliers.

Another series called “Fueling the Future”, also produced by the BBC, shows a similar focus. Out of seven articles published to date, only three touch on alternatives to fossil fuels. This is absurd; here is a series which purports to talk about where we will get our energy from in the future. We know we have to stop emitting CO2 if we are to have a fighting chance of surviving as a species, and yet fracking, and energy produced from methane hydrate (another form of non-conventional fossil fuel) are discussed as being serious energy options for the future. Notably absent so far in this series has been serious discussion of renewable technologies such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and ocean thermal transfer. There has also been little discussion of nuclear fission, or the potential for nuclear fusion. These are the technologies that will power us in the future, if we survive that long. Admittedly this series appeared in the business, rather than the environmental section, but it nonetheless illustrates the apparent inability of many commentators to envisage a future beyond fossil fuels.

I am not singling out the BBC for criticism; its coverage of environmental issues is generally good, especially when compared with many of the US networks. However the above examples illustrate how media networks around the world have selective blindness when it comes to energy issues. When even the International Energy Agency (IEA) says in its annual report that two thirds of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to avoid temperature increases of greater than 2°C, then the world should be sitting up and taking notice.

Instead what is happening is a fossil fuel arms race. Nearly every country appears to want to climb onto the fracking bandwagon. Russia is looking to exploit oil and gas from the arctic; the Canadian government is intent on developing Canada as an oil and gas superpower, at tremendous cost to its environment; the UK is intending to remove subsidies for on-shore wind turbines; Germany is increasing its use of coal (I guess none of these governments can actually have read the IEA report).

What concerns me most is the disconnect between government policy and what scientists are saying. Governments around the world routinely offer up environmental platitudes in public, while ministers who hold the financial purse strings do little to encourage comprehensive changes to the energy system. In fact most government ministers appear to believe that if they ignore climate change for long enough it will go away. Financial subsidies for renewables are being slashed by governments around the world, while at the same time fossil fuel subsides are left untouched, or even being increased in some cases. All this is occurring in the wake of spectacular growth in the renewables sector (some cynical people might even draw a connection between these events).

That is why I am convinced that changes to our energy system will come from the bottom up. The impetus will come from cities, from counties, and from small start-up companies; from those who can see beyond the deadlock at government level. Instead of waiting for guidance from national governments, these organisations will move ahead with the development of new energy infrastructure, irrespective of government policies. This process can already be seen in action, with the proliferation of alternative energy projects springing up worldwide, and the exponential growth in solar PV installations currently being seen in the US and China. Before we know it the momentum will have become unstoppable, and governments around the world will be left playing catch up.

It is time for the mainstream media to wake up to the revolution which is occurring in the energy sector. Up to now they have been looking in the wrong place. It is not occurring at the government level, but rather at the local level, and as a consequence it has been overlooked by many commentators, who still see a future based around fossil fuels. The inertia of governments and the giant energy companies is likely to make them irrelevant in the energy landscape of the future. Small, nimble energy producers providing distributed energy production are likely to lead the transition to a low carbon future. Eventually the mainstream media will realise that fracking is not the path to a future utopia, and will start to cover the real energy story. Until then the transformation of the energy landscape will remain a revolution by stealth.


photo credit: CEE Bankwatch Network via photopin cc

About the Author

Ken Whitehead is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, where he specialises in using unmanned aerial vehicles for a variety of environmental monitoring applications. For his PhD he developed methods for measuring glacial flow rates and ice loss in the Canadian Arctic. In the past he has been a remote sensing instructor, and has worked as a remote sensing / geomatics specialist in the UK, South Africa, and Canada. Ken is originally from Scotland, but currently lives in interior British Columbia, where he enjoys life in the great Canadian outdoors.